The black and white of conservation

By | Science & Technology
Tian Tian at Edinburgh Zoo. Credit@STVphotosviaflickr.com.

Edinburgh Zoo announced earlier this month that Tian Tian, their prized giant panda, was likely to give birth at the end of August, following artificial insemination back in April of this year. The journey to this pregnancy has been fascinating and educational for both conservationists and the public, enthused with passion for wildlife protection. Zoos such as Edinburgh provide a wealth of benefits to both the local community and conservation efforts around the world. The arrival of a panda cub would be a symbol of hope for the protection of pandas in captivity and the wild.

The panda pair Tian Tian and Yang Guang were brought to Ediburgh Zoo in December 2011, loaned from China for a decade. Since their arrival a number of attempts to conceive a cub have been carried out. The conception of offspring in wild pandas occurs in a short 36 hour window during April or May, whilst birth usually occurs around 4 months after in August or September. To recreate this, artificial insemination was performed in April on 10 year old Tian Tian. This attempt appears to be a success as the analysis of proteins and hormones present in Tian Tian’s urine, have suggested that she is carrying young. Pandas show little physical evidence of pregnancy and may sometimes even act out pseudo pregnancies by sleeping and eating more. Therefore it is only through careful studies that scientists are able to learn about the pregnancy of these rare mammals.

The entrance to Edinburgh Zoo. Credit@Nina^viaflickr.com

The entrance to Edinburgh Zoo. Credit@Nina^viaflickr.com

Throughout history zoos have been at the centre of our animal knowledge. For example, Charles Darwin spent many days interacting with an orangutan at London Zoo. This was paramount to expanding his knowledge on both evolution and animal expressions for which he is now so famous for. Gaining vital first-hand experience with pandas allows scientists to apply this knowledge to the wild, improving programmes to help reintroduce pandas into the wild. After the earthquake in China in 2008 The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) provided immediate support to help rebuild the conservation centre and their natural habitat. The RZSS continues to help build knowledge of pandas in order to learn how to best care for the pandas in captivity and through programmes in China to reintroduce them to the wild. Zoos act as a safe haven for rare species such as the panda whilst efforts are made to improve the stability of their natural habitat. For example work to help link up existing areas of habitat to allow pandas to roam is underway in China. The freedom to roam is an important feature of a panda’s lifestyle.

Giant pandas are a key species in conservation, symbolising to the public the beauty of nature and the need to protect it. Organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) clearly recognise this by using the panda as part of their logo. Zoos aims to reinforce the messages of conservation to the general public. Since the panda’s arrival at Edinburgh Zoo educational strategies for schools has reached 1 million students, sowing the seeds for a future of potential passionate animal conservationists. Visitors to the zoo are also expected to bring around £28 million into the Scottish economy, with a significant proportion going back into conservation and animal welfare.

Zookeepers, the public and all parties involved are keen to see the outcome of this pregnancy. Two Chinese experts are due to arrive at Edinburgh zoo to aid the birth process. Should a cub be born it will be carefully cared for out of public sight to ensure its utmost safety. However, the zoo is confident that the pandas will be back in the enclosure several months after the birth. Bringing Tian Tian and Yang Guang to Edinburgh Zoo has brought millions of enthusiastic visitors to the area, boosting the economy of Scotland and reinforcing the importance of wildlife conservation whilst making educational progress. Continued and improved support in zoos may hold the key to protecting species across the planet.

How else might zoos aim to protect species in the wild?

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